Perspectives | Human Rights

‘I had a house on Gradinite Street’

The Roma community using art to fight for their demolished homes. Photos: Vesselina Nikolaeva

By - 07.10.2019

In 2017, the houses of the Roma community living on Gradinite Street in Sofia, were destroyed, automatically making at least 50 people — 30 of them children — homeless. The residents were given only a week’s notice. Some were provided tents by church representatives, while others created makeshift shelters comprised of debris from their destroyed homes.

The demolishment was ordered by the Sofia Municipality. According to them, the illegal constructions were removed because the land was set to become a park. 

None of the families, who lost their only homes, were provided with an alternative shelter and evictions took place without a proper assessment of their situation. Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Bulgaria, and face discrimination, social exclusion and stigma on a daily basis. 

If no adequate alternative housing is provided, forcibly evicted families are put in life- and health-threatening situations and often lose access to food, education, health care, employment and other livelihood opportunities.

“I’ve lived here on Gradinite Street since I was 7, and now I'm 40. Home is everything to me. To have a roof over my head and a house where my children and my grandchildren will grow up. I'm disappointed by the state. This is my whole life. We continue to live in the remains of the demolished houses here, nothing has been cleared for more than a year now, we live with our children in the dirt. And this is the place where I grew up, where my mother was born.” - Aksina, 40

Thirty-five of the people whose homes were destroyed took part in a powerful art action in July 2019, to reclaim their demolished neighborhood and shine a light on forced evictions in Bulgaria. The intervention was organized by the organization at which I work, Fine Acts, a global platform for socially engaged creative solutions.

Giant posters with people’s portraits were printed and placed upon the ruins of their homes, and shot from above. The posters were held down with bricks and other materials taken from the debris. 

This action was part of the global Inside Out initiative, which communicates social problems through portrait photography and giant posters placed in urban areas. In Sofia, Fine Acts worked with Vesselina Nikolaeva, a photographer, who has worked for years with the community in the Orlandovtsi neighborhood.

Three of the families are fighting to keep their homes and have filed a lawsuit in court against the city municipality. 

In the past several years, there has been a serious increase in anti-Roma sentiments and actions in Bulgaria, which have become a strong impetus for local authorities to initiate demolition proceedings in Roma neighborhoods. Often, there is no discussion with the affected families about the possible alternatives prior to the demolition of their houses. In fact, they are left homeless.

Earlier this year, a proposal was put forward to “integrate” Roma communities by curbing welfare, creating vigilante groups and demolishing unauthorized settlements, which has alarmed human rights groups. It has yet to be voted on.

“Having no home is extremely bad. For the past two years [after they demolished my house], I’ve moved seven times. I had a house on Gradinite Street. I lived there for 34 years, I grew up there, I got married there. I have five children. They live all over the place now. My wife died of a sickness. I work in the construction sphere. I renovate houses, I make other people’s houses.” - Slavcho, 54